Fight to the ‘Death’ and Go ‘Hungry’ at Hunger Games Camp

It was bound to happen eventually. The Hunger Games have come to a summer camp near you, in the great state of Florida. Yes, in Florida, the land where the real death of an African-American child can be excused in a court of law, the fake “deaths” of predominantly white children are making quite a lot of headlines.

In the meantime, as these children were undergoing pretend suffering at summer camp, hunger striking inmates at Guantanamo Bay—off the coast of Florida—were experiencing very genuine suffering at the hands of the US government. Hunger striking inmates. Fasting inmates. Some sort of hybrid in between. These men lie in a strange, nebulous world where torture and religious practice intersect in haunting ways.

What can we say about this strange confluence of events?

What does it mean to face hunger in a culture of spectacle? What does it mean to play at hunger at a summer camp? Hunger can come in so many forms: as a dire circumstance of daily life; as religious discipline in many forms of fasting; as an act of political protest; as part of a disease. 

In the dystopian Hunger Games nation of Panem, hunger remains oblique, obfuscated, hidden: the wealthy crowds reveling in the games never witness the hunger in the outer districts, the desperate straits of half-starved children forced to fight to the death in the Capitol, those poorer children whose districts rarely triumph. 

Hunger at Gitmo draws our attention to human beings whose imprisonment and torture have also been hidden. We have not literally witnessed their suffering. We have witnessed a simulacra, a video capture of Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) voluntarily undergoing (part of) the forced feeding procedure in a disturbing YouTube short that went viral. This drew some public attention to the practice, though it continues.

Yet in Florida, children are frolicking in a green field, focusing on weapons, not hunger, and on choice: the freedom of play. One of the most oft-repeated, re-reported quotes from the campers reads: “If I have to die, I want to die by an arrow … Don’t kill me with a sword. I’d rather be shot.” So much imagined agency! So different from the narrow straits nearby.

Our gut response might not be to think of summer camps as political spaces. But they are. Summer camps have and will continue to promote evangelical politics, progressive ideals, muscular Christianity, support for the nascent state of Israel, every political thing related to the scouting movements, and more. They are utopian terrariums setting forth ideals for each generation. It’s not just bug juice and mean girls.

Hunger Games camp depoliticizes the ethical point beneath Collins’ brilliant trilogy—that the game is not a game; it’s a trap and a means of control wielded by a dictatorial government. As in the 1980s film War Games, the only way to win is not to play. Hunger Games camp simultaneously makes a political move by normalizing our embodiment of violent roles, our rugged frontier mythos, our winner-takes-all individualism. This makes it easier to accept guns, stand one’s ground, and torture in our names. Maybe it’s all just a bad dream about summer camp. 

And, of course, the campers are not hungry. As reported in the Tampa Bay Times, they arrive at camp with lunchbags in hand. Their desperation is an act, and they show no fear. Their power comes from imagined weapons, not an imagined inner fortitude. In the original trilogy, our daring protagonist Katniss faces dehydration, as water is a vital, sought-after resource. In contrast, reporter Lisa Gartner describes young women who, during the final battle at camp, “paused in a safe zone, a green picnic bench under a tree, to get a drink in the shade.”

Over at the Revealer, Sajida Jalalzai writes that, “The strikers at Guantanamo are using what they have, namely, their bodies, to prevent themselves from disappearing from the American national agenda.” In the Hunger Games world, bodies are all that is given to the tributes facing off in the arena. Any weapons, sustenance, or protection they gain is hard fought. This is not so for the casual summer camp tribute.

One Florida psychology professor called the camp’s premise “unthinkable.” No. Kids who play violent games at summer camp are entirely thinkable. Just look at what most girls do to their Barbies. Unfortunately, what’s also thinkable, right now, is an American government that tortures inmates being held indefinitely without charges, a government rather like the imagined government in Collins’ dystopian future.

After camp counselors became concerned about the campers’ focus on the language of killing, they altered the goal of the game, which would now be “collecting lives.” I find this apt and terrifying. It’s not new. It mirrors common video game parlance. But more starkly, it makes me think of deities and demons collecting souls, of missionaries seeking souls to convert. It makes me think about how many lives we Americans have collected: in Guantanamo, in stateside domestic prisons, overseas in wars.

Yes, these are familiar criticisms in our ever post-post-9/11 nation. But what’s going on here is more than violence, and perhaps even worse than Orwell, or Kafka, or Collins. It’s a through-the-looking-glass world of a prison that promised to stop its force-feeding of inmates during the month of Ramadan, out of “respect” for the sunrise-to-sundown fast. We’re not only trapped in logic games and double speak. We are a bump on a vinyl record hopping over the same track as the scratch gets louder and louder, but we never hear it.

The children playing the Hunger Games at camp can rise again if they choose to do so, resurrected for another summer. The inmates at Guantanamo cannot yet rise from the world of their torture, even if they can, perhaps, spiritually rise above it. 

See you next year.

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eichlerj@uwosh.edu'

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature, from NYU Press.